Nickeil-Alexander Walker was always special.
Buzz Williams knew it. His Virginia Tech teammates knew it. The fanbase, media and the rest of the ACC knew it.
The talent of the 22-year old Canadian was on display on Wednesday night as Alexander-Walker set a career-high and led all scorers with 37 points in the L.A. Clippers' 111-106 win.
"He was fabulous offensively tonight," New Orleans head coach Stan Van Gundy said. "He did a great job attacking pick-and-rolls and scoring. ... I think he knew he would have time to be able to find his rhythm."
In his second career start in the NBA, Alexander-Walker delivered. He outscored superstars Kawhi Leonard (28 points) and Paul George (27 points) and was ever-so efficient. He hit 15 of his 23 attempts from the floor, made five of eight from behind the three-point arc and was a perfect two of two from the free throw line.
Even more, he finished with eight rebounds, two shy of a double-double, one assist, one steal and one turnover. Oh, and he scored 26 of his 37 points in the second half, outscoring all players except Leonard in George through just two quarters of play.
"I really can't tell you [what was clicking tonight]," Alexander-Walker said. "I just slowed the game down. Early on, I tried to let it come to me. As the game went on, I was riding its wave."
In a game where the Pelicans were short handed — injuries kept Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe out while Zion Williamson missed the game because of an inconclusive COVID test result — Alexander-Walker shined in his 33 minutes.
The former Hokies guard did it all, from driving into the lane and hitting floaters and layups to spotting up and knocking down three-pointers. He even hit a trey in the face of Leonard, a two-time NBA Champion and a two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
OK NAW! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/goSS7EwfdV— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) January 14, 2021
Alexander-Walker was already familiar with a second start high. Over two seasons in Blacksburg, his Hokie best 29 points came against The Citadel, the second game of his collegiate career. He was efficient that night, too, hitting 10 of 16 attempts.
In the other 66 games he played at Tech, he never scored 26 points. He scored 25 in three games — vs. Purdue, Boston College and at Miami — that all resulted in Virginia Tech victories. Averaging 13.5 points per game in his career, he scored at least 20 points in three games in his freshman year and in 12 of 34 games his sophomore year.
The 17th overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Alexander-Walker scored his previous career-high of 29 points in his first career start in the Pelicans' final game in the bubble against Orlando on Aug. 13. He entered Wednesday's game averaging 7.9 points and 14.7 minutes per game.
Alexander-Walker blew that out of the water, though, and as Dave Pasch and Mark Jackson said on the ESPN broadcast, "had the best game of his life."
"Alexander-Walker really kept them in the game," L.A. Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue said. "He made threes, layups and in-between layups. He pretty much got everything he wanted."
The Clippers led by 18 points at halftime, 61-43, but New Orleans wasn't out of it yet. Thanks to 15 points in the third quarter from Alexander-Walker, the Pelicans roared back and trailed 83-71 at the end of the period.
He helped the Pelicans pull within six in the final period too, but his 11 fourth quarter points weren't enough.
Nevertheless, he made a great impression at point guard, a position he played in his final season in Blacksburg when Justin Robinson was injured, and felt comfortable. He found his flow scoring wise and even handled the ball particularly well, committing his lone turnover in the fourth quarter.
"You feel more relaxed when you don't have to worry about when you play," Alexander-Walker said. "I don't feel pressure coming off the bench. ... Starting [the game] let me get into my flow earlier."
With so many absences for the Pelicans, the Clippers keyed in on Brandon Ingram. The former Duke star finished with 22 points (8-19 FG), six rebounds and three assists, though it was the attention he drew from everyone on L.A. that really opened up the floor for Alexander-Walker and the rest of New Orleans.
"With most of our starters out, they knew BI [Brandon Ingram] was the head of the snake," Alexander-Walker said. "Him [Ingram] being so unselfish, not forcing the issue, helped everyone tonight."
Alexander-Walker received plenty of national attention, as one does after dropping 37 points, including from SportsCenter and ESPN.
The performance should be one to remember for Hokie fans as well. It's the second-most points any Virginia Tech basketball player has ever scored in the NBA, just one-point shy of the legendary Dell Curry's 38 points in the Hornets' 1996 season opener against Toronto.
One-point shy. In his second career start.
That's pretty darn good. Then again, so is he.